‘Malabarising’ the Indian/Hindu Family? Lakshmi N Menon in the Hindu Code Bill Debate

Below is a long excerpt from the Rajya Sabha debate of 1 October 1955, in which Lakshmi N Menon put up a very strong defence of women’s property rights in the discussion of the Hindu Code Bill. It is brilliant intervention in debate, one which should make every Malayali woman proud.

Lakshmi N Menon (1899-1994) was one of the most successful Malayali women in Indian politics  despite the fact that she never really entered formal politics, though attracted to nationalism and international politics as a student abroad in the 1920s. Her father was the well-known reformer, educationist, and rationalist Ramavarma Thampan, (her mother was Madhavikkutty Amma) and her husband the educationist and scholar V K Nandana Menon — but she was one of the rare women who were better known than their male relatives. Lakshmi N Menon was educated in Thiruvananthapuram and she worked for a time as a teacher and later as a lawyer, growing closer to social activism in the 1920s and 30s especially associated with the All-India Women’s Conference. She was a member of the Rajya Sabha in the 1950s; she represented as the head of the India delegation at the UN in the 1950s and was a Minister of State in the 1960s.  She was nominated to the Committee on the Status of Women at the UN.


 

THE PARLIAMENTARY SECRETARY TO THE MINISTER FOR EXTERNAL AFFAIRS (SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON): Mr. Deputy Chairman, Sir, it is with very great pleasure that we welcome this new measure which has been just introduced by the hon. Minister. During the last few years, we have seen how this measure has been treated in a rather unpopular, undemocratic and perhaps unparliamentary way, by mobilising the reactionary forces in the country to put a stop to a law which was needed to meet the changing demands of our society. Ten years ago when the B. N. Rau Committee’s Report was published, there was general discontent because the daughter was given half the share of the son. Since then, that share has been raised to be equal to that of the son. The whole thing appears almost like the interview of Tarquin the Proud with Sibyl.

SHRI M. GOVINDA REDDY (Mysore):What is that interview?

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: I am going to tell you that. Sibyl had nine books of wisdom and these were offered to Tarquin the Proud at a certain price. He refused to accept it because he thought that the price was very heavy.

P. C. MITRA: We are not in Rome; we are in India.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: The offer being rejected, she burnt three of them and after a lapse of time offered the remaining six at the same price. Again being refused, she burnt three more, and after some interval, asked the same price for the remaining three and sold them for that same price. The reason why I am referring to this is because there was a time when the mere mention of share to the daughter was regarded as blasphemy and heresy; then half the share was accepted and now hon. Members are faced with the proposition of accepting equal share and if this is not accepted, the time will come—I regret to say—when as a result of intelligent pursuits of gainful occupations, women will beat back the men and will receive a share ……

(Interruptions.) DR. P. C. MITRA: Never, never.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: The hon. Member in the front seat might raise his arms; he might shout; he might do anything that he likes. He will be like the fictitious Dame Partington with her mop who tried to push back the Atlantic with her simple broomstick and he will find that the changes will submerge him. The rights which we regard as progressive today will become just a matter of course in the years to come.

Sir, I want to recall to this House that hon. Members have taken the pledge by the Constitution and that Constitution was framed not by the women of India but by a Constituent Assembly, 97 per cent, of the members of which were men and great fundamental rights have been proclaimed in the Constitution granting equal, social, political and other justice ……

P. C. MITRA: And also illegitimacy?

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: ………….to all citizens of India. All these have been granted in our Constitution by our brothers and by our colleagues and today when a simple measure like this comes up, they raise their voice of protest and they  take recourse to unparliamentary methods to see that the measure is not placed on the Statute Book. Sir, it is not a secret, as far as this House is concerned, how during the last few days the decisions of the Business Advisory Committee were upset, and how signatures were asked from the same people who had signed before for its introduction, to postpone it. Now, even at this last moment, when the hon. Minister was on his feet, an attempt was made to see that this Bill was not introduced here in this House.

SHRI J. S. BISHT (Uttar Pradesh): No, no.

 

We carried it through unanimously last time.

 

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: I mean the Bill as it has emerged from the Joint Select Committee.

Sir, I want to point out something else. One has only to go through the Report to see how the Joint Select Committee behaved. At no time was-more than two-thirds of the members present. Only at one meeting out of the 16 meetings held were there 30 members; at other times, the number varied between 19 and 26. This shows that if the members of the Joint Select Committee were anxious to put forward their point of view, whether reactionary or progressive, it does not matter, if they were anxious to do their work properly, they would have attended the meetings and they could have made the recommendation which the hon. Member ardently pleading for the under-privileged all the time has made. He rose on a point of order, but there was no point of order. Unfortunately, he did not know what order was when he tried to create disorder in this House. I may tell the House that we are not living today in a pastoral society where men till the soil and women milk the cows.

SHRI BHUPESH GUPTA: But Mr. Mukerjee wants to live in it.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: May be; perhaps there are many other Members who not only live in those days but think behind those years even. Sir, today we are proclaiming that we are working towards a socialistic pattern of society. We proclaim that we abide by the Constitution. Is this the kind of leadership, is this the kind of democracy, is this the kind of socialism that we are going to have in which women are denied their elementary and basic rights?

P. C. MITRA: Is there any country where they have women leaders?

DEPUTY CHAIRMAN: Order, order.Don’t get excited.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Sir, I seek your protection. Sir, appeals are made almost every day that the women of this country should come forward and participate in all these ventures, in Community Projects, in National Extension Service Blocks, and in many other things which are meant for the progress of the country.

P. C. MITRA: And in kitchen too.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Soon we will find that many Members of this House are fit only for the kitchen and not for the work of this House. This is not the way to behave in the House. It is a disgrace that hon. Members who are legislators and representatives of the people should behave in this irresponsible way because…….

{Interruptions.)

SHRI MAHESH SARAN (Bihar): This is not a remark to be made in the House.

DEPUTY CHAIRMAN: Come to the Bill, -Madam.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: I am giving the preface, Sir. A great responsibility rests on the members of this House to see that the pledges that they have taken and sworn by the Constitution are implemented. Therefore, there is no point in trying to obstruct the passage of this Bill.

Now, I come to the Bill. The Bill as a whole is a great advance towards article 44 of the Constitution. One of the Directive Principles is to have a uniform civil code. Earlier, when the motion for reference of this Bill to the Select Committee was moved in this House, I had spoken—as many others had done—and said that one of the reasons why we should give our unstinted support to this Bill was that this is the first step towards a national civil code. We had also urged at that time that these customary and other laws which were not included as part of the Hindu Law should be brought within the ambit of this new Bill so that the entire Hindu community in India will be governed by the same law.

It is with a great sense of relief that we find that the Joint Select Committee under the able direction of the hon. Minister has been able to accomplish this. Sir, Marumakkat-tayam and Aliyasantana laws are laws in which daughters and sons inherit equally and yet they were willing to give up some of their rights and some of the sentiments that they had entertained for the customary laws so that our country may have a uniform code and law. There was a time when Dayabhaga was the law and when we argued that we must have one uniform law to ensure equality and justice, the hon. Minister said that I was suggesting the ‘Malabarisation’ of the whole of the Hindu Law. Today, we have found  in years past, the one argument advanced a compromise which has produced a synthesis of the existing systems, a synthesis which ensures the great principles of our Constitution and marks a step forward towards a national civil code.

Sir, the reason why even non- Hindus are against this Bill is an interesting matter to be enquired into. The Non-Hindus, that is, the minority communities which are still governed by other personal laws, like the Muslims, Christians, Parsis and others……………….

SHRI A. DHARAM DAS (Uttar Pradesh): We are far more advanced than what you have provided for in this Bill.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: ………….  are afraid that if this Bill becomes law, they will be having a system of law in which women do not have the same rights as they will be having under this law. And, therefore, instead of accepting a progressive measure
which will set the pace for these laws as well, they want to hamper it, so that the sanctity of those laws can be maintained.
4 P.M.
Here, I congratulate the Joint Select Committee as well as the Law Minister and those other Members in this House who have supported us, when we put forward the demand of having a common civil code in which all these different systems of law will be syn-thesised, for their co-operation. Now, we come to two or three other characteristics of this new changed law, which has claimed the attention of this House.

Sir, women’s organisations all over the world, I should think, are watching with great interest, this clause in the Bill giving equal right to daughters and sons. It is a big move and it is also a move which was expected of our Government, because it is in conformity with our professions and beliefs, as far as equality of rights is concerned.

Now, in years past, the one argument advanced against making the daughter simultaneous heir with the son was that there would be fragmentation of holdings. It does not matter if a family has six sons and the property is divided among the six sons, as long as they happened to be sons. There was no fragmentation. The moment there is a son and a daughter and the property is divided between the two, into two shares, there will be all the evils of fragmentation of holdings. You can read that in our texts and see around us also. Now. that hurdle has been crossed. Nobody talks of fragmentation of holdings, because we know, under the new land policies that our Governments follow, there can be legislation for consolidating holdings and also legislation which would do away with those items which we fear in this law.

Now, fresh bogies are raised. We are told that the natural affection of the brother to the sister will be spoiled if the daughter were given a share, that there will not be any affection for the family, that she will conspire with the husband, with the son-in-law, and there will be utter confusion in the joint family. This only shows the complexes some of our Members entertain, where women’s rights are concerned. Everybody here, I am sure, who is a father, and who has a daughter says, and many of them have told me, “now look at me, I have divided my property equally among my sons and daughters, or I have only one daughter and all my property will go to the daughter.” Yet, they do not want other people’s daughters to get an equal share in their parents’ property. This is most unfair………..

DR P C MITRA:  Concubine’s daughter also.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON : I agree with the Legal Affairs Minister that giving a
share in the family property to the daughter will produce great changes in our society. Today we hear of girls committing suicide because their fathers cannot find the
dowry for their marriage. These things go on unacknowledged and unrecognised by our society because they think it is only natural for a girl, who cannot have the dowry, to commit suicide. In the the time of Snehalata, it has happened. Therefore, what does
it matter? On the other hand, if one person dies of starvation or if one person is shot down, the Members of Parliament will raise short notice questions. They will raise half-hour discussions. But hundreds of girls might kill themselves, because of the social evil of dowry, and nothing is heard in this House or anywhere else ….. ‘

SHRI S. N. MAZUMDAR: It may also be noted that those people who raise such questions when people are shot, are supporting this Bill.
SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Sir, I want to point out, as a parallel, how in France after
the Second World War,  when women were given equal rights to property and also opportunities; for occupation, their conditions improved and prostitution, which was a vice in France, disappeared. Today, these girls who are left out, because they do not inherit, who have no rights in their ancestral property or their family property, are used for trafficking. Women and children are used to be kept in homes and ashrams, and all sort of immoral activities are encouraged, because you have a large number of dispossessed, unfortunate, women who have nowhere to go. They may be young widows or they may be women from poor families who have not got the wherewithal to live by.

Sir, when every woman has a right, or those who come from families having property have a right in the property, her status automatically improves. She does not become, as one of the Members heartlessly and callously said some time ago, an outsider to the family, because she is married. The daughter now, as the hon. Minister has pointed out, will have a homestead. She will not be neglected. She will have a status, and she will still go on loving her brothers and parents, as she had loved them before. If a person can have natural affection for the parents without any right whatever in the ancestral property, is it possible to imagine that she would lose all that affection because she gets a nshare in the family property? The difficulties that would arise from partitioning the homestead have been solved and the Minister has assured the the means by which that has been done.

The second step which is very, very remarkable indeed and which is very
necessary is the giving of absolute estate to the women’s property. The Hindu women’s
limited estate has been a source of unmitigated litigation, because because the legal
necessity had to be proved and every time a property has been mortgaged or sold without the consent of the collaterals or the heirs, the thing became a question for litigation. Now, all that will disappear, because by having absolute estate over her inheritance, the woman becomes her own agent and she is not dependent upon the lawyers for the endorsement of her right.

Sir, much has been said and a good deal of levity has been provoked when the question
of illegitimate children has been mentioned. People very seldom know, or they do not care to know, what is meant by legitimising the illegitimate child. It is done in every civilized country. Where paternity is established, naturally the child develops a claim in the property, or in the rights of its parent, and this has been done. And I think, it is only in conformity with modern ideas of illegitimacy that we have accepted this. A child is neither legitimate nor illegitimate. A human being is born a child and it does not matter whether it is born inside wedlock or outside wedlock. And it is disgraceful that in any country we should have a law which would penalise children of that category or children born outside wedlock. If there are difficulties, these are difficulties which can be looked into during the debate during the second reading of the Bill.

Lastly, I would like to pay a tribute to the late Shri B. N. Rau, whose tolerance, whose  wisdom, whose understanding, and whose vision of what the country should have, enabled us to have this Bill. We know that Members who have become interested in the Bill only recently know very little about the great services he has rendered for the cause of the codification of Hindu- Law.
SHRI R. P. N. SINHA: Why don’t you pay a tribute to Dr. Shrimati Seeta Parmanand?
SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON :I will pay my tribute to to Dr. Shrimati Seeta Parmanand.
You wait.
I will pay my tribute again to the Minister for Legal Affairs, Mr. Pataskar, who has brought into this Bill, not so much his own ideas as the progressive ideas which are
favoured by the progressive elements in this country.
PROF G. RANGA: Including himself.
SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Including himself, certainly.

Before I sit down, I want to utter a word of warning to those Members who are determined—because they have shown their determination in more ways than one—to see that this Bill is modified.

Recently, we have seen how protests against the Hindu Code Bill have taken the
form of Sati or Pathi Puja.

AN HON. MEMBER: What is Sati?

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON : That means throwing a woman into flames when the husband dies.

PROF. G. RANGA: They have done it as a protest against this Bill.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Even when the husband was living.

PROF. G. RANGA: Is it not exactly imagination?

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: You read the newspapers. You will know all this. You
will find that these are the very people who are going to revive those very things which
were followed a hundred years ago. It will not be a surprising thing. Some of these people who profess great idealism in certain cases become great reactionaries when the question of woman’s right comes. They seldom think that this law has nothing to do with women alone. It has everything to do with the Hindu family—to Indian family, Indian citizenship. All these misconceptions are due to the fact that we think that the family ultimately means men. ‘Dharma’ means regulation of women’s lives so that a man may do anything he likes. They have the means to regulate women’s lives so that men can have what they want. This double-standard of  morality has always been the basis of Hindu custom or religion. You may refer to the shastras and things like that. It has happened in practice. I am not thinking of scriptures. I am thinking of what is going on around me and in front of me and I do not see any difference at all.PR

OF. G. RANGA: That is not an argument of any aid to us.

SHRIMATI LAKSHMI MENON: Watchfulness is needed to defeat the attempts to prevent the passing of this law. Unless we see that the things that we profess are implemented—your Constitution is implemented, our Five Year Plan is implemented—we are unable to get what we want.

With these words, I commend this Bill to  the House and I hope that Members, when
they understand more about the Bill as our Legal Affairs Minister has pointed out and
explained, will realise the essential need for such a Bill, because to-day we are living in 1955—a hundred years after the Widow Remarriage Act was proclaimed in 1857. And
we are living in a community which is far advanced in its economic and political which is far behind these conceptions—social and political conceptions which are in currency to-day.

Finally, I wish to point out that we have to show that we have an approach to the social and legislative problems—an approach which is neither idealistic nor reactionary—but
an approach which is necessitated by the compelling needs of our times. Such an approach will be a true approach and such an approach only can keep our society together. On the other hand if we say that laws relating to marriage and property are laws which undermine the moral foundations of our society, we are not telling
the truth. Sir, morality is not built upon injustice; morality is not built upon prejudice,
it is built on rectitude of conduct—a correct appreciation of the needs of the times  of
the principles which society professes. I hope that these needs will be taken into consideration and the opponents of the Bil1, if there are any—I know there are not many—will realise that we cannot hold back the change that has come upon us. The most graceful thing would be to accept it and see that other things are done so that the family which is the unit of our society will be maintained and the great and sacred moral standards which we have always been proud to possess, will be valued and cherished.

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